“Looking Ahead” 16×20, oil on canvasBuy Now

In this specific instance, yes. I entered an art contest I very much wanted to win, and I didn’t.

Here’s the context: In 2012, I started running again after my son was born and I’d recovered from the C-section I had not planned on having. After days of unmedicated labor, my doctor decided surgery was the best option, and I, exhausted, agreed.

The natural birth had been so important to me during my pregnancy— a fact hindsight has rendered laughable. Check out my kindle library at the time and you’ll see ten books on childbirth and exactly zero on parenting.

As much as my son’s actual entrance into this world didn’t quite seem to matter any more when I was subsequently sleep deprived and possibly losing my mind, it still nagged at me. I felt betrayed by my own body. A few months later, when my marriage lay in ruins all around me, my body stopped producing milk, and I had to switch to formula. Not devastating in and of itself, but I added it to my list of ways my body had failed to live up to its design.

Running became particularly attractive to me because I saw it as a way for my body to redeem itself— to do something hard when time and time again it had fallen short.

So I downloaded a half marathon training schedule, followed it like it was my job, and set my sights on the Louisiana marathon. About a month before the race, after completing the last of the training schedule— a ten mile run, I developed a searing pain in my right knee. My neighbor was a personal trainer who put the fear of God into me— don’t run, he demanded. Do you want to take care of that baby on crutches, he asked. I waited a few days and then attempted another run. This time, a half mile in and the knee was screaming.

I didn’t run the half marathon, and I quit running altogether for the next couple years.

So when Anna at the Louisiana Arts and Science Museum sent me a link to the art contest for the 2018 Louisiana Marathon poster, I jumped. I’ve been running again lately. A lot. My knee feels good, even on the long runs. I’ve built a successful art career out of the dark ages of 2012. My imagination could barely handle the thought of not only finally completing the half, but having the image of one of my paintings on the back of the t-shirt I was wearing when I did it.

I entered. The maximum three submissions. And I didn’t win.

Hi, my name is Denise and I’m addicted to podcasts. My latest obsession is Hidden Brain and Ted Radio Hour. Both of which recently had relevant and interesting episodes on failure. In Hidden Brain’s “Getting Unstuck” host Shankar Vedantam describes a concept called “design thinking”. To fully appreciate it, you’ll need to give the entire episode a listen, but the idea is that there is no one solution to any given problem— there are many good options. He explains (and I’m paraphrasing) “Try something practical, doable— send it out into the world, learn from how it performs. Work on it and release it back into the world again. Rather than sitting around figuring out what would be ideal, try a series of experiments, learn from them. Keep doing this indefinitely. There is no perfect you, but there’s probably a better you that is achievable.”

In other words (and these words are actually in the episode) “fail early and often.

Ted Radio Hour’s episode, “Failure is an Option” similarly describes failure as a path to knowledge and highlights companies that actually reward (standing ovation and all) “failure”.

Today’s painting, the first of 31, started off as one of my three entries for the Louisiana Marathon contest. The heron used to have runners behind her. There used to be the suggestion of moss-covered oaks. But I sent it out into the world and learned from it. I reworked it this morning over a cup of coffee. The runners did, I’ll admit, feel a bit forced, a little trite.

When I look back at my life thus far, I see a series of failures. If I’d uttered that sentence a few years ago it would have been marked with sadness and frustration. As I write it today, the underlying sentiment is joy. I have tried many things that didn’t work out. And I changed course. I’ve had to turn around, regroup, find a new direction. And because of that, I feel like I’m traveling the world, each time more surprised by the beauty I’ve witnessed in previously unheard of corners.

I don’t mean for this post to be pure, silly optimism in the face of real tragedy. Part of my acceptance of failure is that I now allow myself to feel it— agonizing defeat and disappointment that I’m not trying to dress up as success so much as allow it to guide me toward other possibilities, other potentials, other strategies— all of which could also very well end in a failure I’ve learned not to be so scared of. At the very least, failure means you’re up to something. It’s day 1, I’m definitely up to something.

I still plan to run that 2018 half marathon, but not so much for “redemption” anymore. Failure, more than anything, has forced me to look at my often limited and rigid perspective. Is natural childbirth really the end-all-be-all to the human experience? Does running long distances make me more worthy of love? And, of course, does not winning an art contest, mean I shouldn’t keep exploring new avenues for my art?

Working on this already-started Great Blue Heron painting felt doable for Day 1 when 31 days had me wondering (as it always does) what I was thinking— did I really commit to that? So here it is, I’m sending it out into the world, hoping I will learn something from it. Preferably in the next thirty days or so.

If you’ve had a particularly meaningful experience with failure, I’d love to hear about it. 


Side note– every painting this month will be 20% only on the day it’s posted.